War and peace | Ukraine

“It’s about survival”

What once seemed significant for author Serhij Zhadan - irony, coolness, status symbols -  became irrelevant overnight when war broke out in his homeland. Now, collective solidarity and the fight against “evil” is what counts. How are the people in Ukraine affected by this sudden shift?

Mr. Zhadan has short hair and a full beard. He wears a brown turtleneck sweater, a dark jacket and looks seriously into the camera.

Author and musician Serhij Zhadan in Kharkiv, where he lives

Serhij Zhadan sits alone in front of the ceiling-high panorama windows of the event hall in Frankfurt's “Haus am Dom”. His hair, shorn to the side, glistens in the sunny autumn light. He wears a black jacket, black collarless shirt, black skinny jeans and black half-height Doc Martens. He types earnestly on his cell phone screen.

Zhadan looks like a partisan leader giving final instructions before battle. A woman, frizzy gray hair, mint green wool sweater, tentatively approaches him, “I prayed for you!” she says. He looks up, nods, looks at the display again. She pauses, leaves again. Serhij Zhadan has no time for sentimentality, he is at war.

A little later, the hall is full. Today, as part of the “Politics in Free Theater” festival, the war in Ukraine will be discussed here in Frankfurt. The organiser is the Federal Agency for Civic Education. In front of the audience, Zhadan reads poems in Ukrainian and an author friend repeats them in German translation. In one of the poems, a bullet hits a library. It is hopeless, it says, to hide behind literature when called to the dead.

“War changes language, it changes reality, words are given more or less weight, intonation slips away”

Afterwards, during a short panel, Zhadan, who lives in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, explained, “The war changes the language, it changes the reality, the words get more or less weight, the intonation slips away. You think you can see a concept in your mind's eye, but it always falls apart again before you grasp its meaning.”

Here is someone struggling for meaning and truth. The ironic pop writer that Zhadan has been all along, he has to question himself in the war.

In one of his stories from the volume Anthem of Democratic Youth, he says laconically that people die only “for lack of love or lack of money,“ and, „How many young souls are lost because they couldn't make a business plan?” Today, people in Ukraine are dying on the streets of cities, for real, torn apart by bombs and shrapnel.

So another sentence of Zhadan's from his wonderfully Babylonian volume of stories “Mesopotamia” from Kharkiv Mesopotamia takes on a whole new relevance. There it says, “The dead make no demands; it is the living who press us.”

A few paragraphs later, one reads what must be the defining sentence of this new reality, still unimaginable to many at the time of writing: “For us [...] began that age when life slows down and leaves you considerably more time for fear and uncertainty.”

On the stage of the bright hall in the middle of Frankfurt's bombed and rebuilt city center, Zhadan looks across the audience toward the blue sky. He doesn't look tired, but worn out. For weeks he has been touring Europe with his collecgtion Sobaky v kosmosi (or in English, Dogs in the Cosmos) to raise money for the people of Kharkiv.

In a few days, he will be presented with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

“For Zhadan, a time of renunciation has begun. Instead of staging opulent language games, every word must now be fought for”

After that, at the latest, he will return to the front line. For Zhadan, he will say in the subsequent interview, a time of renunciation has begun. Instead of staging opulent language games, every word must now be fought over. And what might have been important a few months ago - money, expensive clothes, status symbols of every kind - now doesn't matter.

An hour later, in the converted attic of the Haus am Dom, Zhadan drops into a designer chair. The German studies graduate switches between Ukrainian and German. He thinks and speaks quickly. His translator searches for the right words. Up close, he is an impressive man: engagingly clever eyes, the sound of his voice pleasant but demanding, an aura of urgency and decisiveness surrounding him.

His literature is populated by people of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They are word acrobats, soldiers of fortune, and hallodris. What does war do to such characters, what does it do to the ironic man of letters? Must do-gooders become heroes, must Zhadan himself become a propagandist of truth and freedom - a literary partisan?

Mr. Zhadan, in these times, do authors have the task of commemorating the dead and preserving their life stories for future generations?

It seems to me that today it is the other way around. Now it is much more important to tell the stories of the people who are still alive. War creates a territory where life sharply intersects with death. What we get to see of it depends on what we put into view.

The no man's land between the living and the dead is a recurring motif in your stories. Do people in Ukraine today increasingly live in this in-between realm, and if so, what does that do to them?

It is impossible to compare literature about life in peace with literature about war. Here, as there, there is a completely different level of concentration of good and evil. It is very important in this situation to stick to the stories of people who live and do not give up themselves. Because war not only destroys us physically, it can break us emotionally.

Of course, it is important to speak of the dead, don't get me wrong. But the people who live and fight this tragedy, the survivors, must now be our focus.

Many of your protagonists are dreamers who live into the day. Just now on stage you spoke about the fact that there is now a generation in Ukraine that has “woken up” and, contrary to expectations, has become warriors.

It is not so much a question of generation and age. People living in a state of war lose a sense of perspective. There is no point in thinking about what you are going to do in a month's time if you don't know whether you will live to see the coming day. It's not fatalism, it's a change of priorities. It's about surviving, morning after morning, day after day.

This has changed the value of many things.

What has become less valuable, what more significant?

For me, it's not about heroism, but rather the realisation that everyone must act for themselves as well as for the community as a whole. Yesterday we were thinking about our careers and trying to make plans, and today we understand that money no longer has any meaning and has become expendable. This is an interesting feeling.

Does war also teach you what can't be dispensed with?

You can no longer do without the feeling of being part of a community. Because that's the only way to endure and overcome fear. I remember that at the beginning of the war you felt safest in the city, even though we were heavily shelled. As soon as you went to the countryside, where things were quieter, the feeling of insecurity came right back.

Protection, or at least the feeling of being safe, is only provided by the collective.

Before the war, many people in Ukraine identified more with the city or region they came from, such as Kharkiv or the Donbass. That's different now.

That's true, Ukrainian was awakened in very different people. Kharkiv Jews and Russians suddenly speak Ukrainian among and with each other. They consciously choose Ukrainian identity in a moment of greatest danger. This is not a question of politics, but of identity. No one can or wants to refrain from professing it anymore.

So by denying Ukraine its right to exist, Putin has paradoxically strengthened and united it?

It sounds like black humour, but Putin is really doing everything he can to make Ukraine a strong nation. The Russian narrative that denies our country its historical legitimacy is a cynical lie. The Russian leadership says it wants to save Russian-speaking Ukrainians, yet it has them murdered. It says it will fight Nazis, yet Russian-speaking Ukrainians take up arms and oppose it.

Yet there was still some loyalty to Russia among many young people in this country before the war. The wind has changed with the invasion.

They use terms like “good” and “evil.” These are very strong, actually religious terms. Are these poles now emerging more clearly again, and if so, who embodies evil, who embodies good?

Evil is the negation of all law and the annihilation of normality. In this war we are in right now, there are no gradual truths, no half-measures. There is an occupier, and there are its victims. It is a war that is being waged against civilians. The mass killings near Kiev, the war crimes committed in Kharkiv: This is the epitome of evil.

There is no rational explanation for that, no excuse.

You said in the previous panel that you are also looking for a new literary language. Does this language have to do without humour and irony?

That's a very difficult question. When you talk and write about mass graves, irony is out of place. At the same time, there has been a lot of irony online in response to the war of aggression, for example, with comics and memes. This is quite crucial, because it shows that Russia is being desacralized, that is, desacralized.

What does that mean?

That we are no longer afraid, neither of Putin nor of his army. This is completely new. Russians are used to being afraid of them, to not loving them, but fearing them and taking them seriously to the maximum. All of a sudden, they realize that in Ukraine they are laughed at. And this, in turn, frightens the architects and planners of this war of aggression.

Russia's power also always consisted in the fact that it had something mystical that could not be fully fathomed. Now we see that it was all for show, a big theatre of lies. There is no great Russia, only an outdated empire, full of outdated reflexes and narratives. It is presided over by an old tsar who has no concepts for the future.

Symbolic of this was the celebration of the pseudoannexation of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions in Moscow's Red Square. Putin said there in all seriousness that he would fight against Satanism. One can only laugh at that.

Repressive and reactionary regimes often rely on fear, progressive and leftist movements prefer to speak of utopian hopes. What is your personal utopia for a free Ukraine?

In Ukraine's political spectrum, it is difficult to determine where to find the left, the right, or even the centre. When people who yesterday identified themselves as cosmopolitan today turn to history and tradition, it does not mean that they have suddenly become right-wingers.

And when nationalists talk about defending European values, they haven't moved an inch to the left. So in Ukrainian reality, these categories make little sense.

But what then? Some truth must remain.

This is something that many in Europe do not understand. There is a certain parallel with Russia. People try to explain the new in old terms and pigeonholes. That is not the way to understand Ukraine.

Give us a hand.

(Laughs). In Germany, when someone talks about being a patriot, they usually identify themselves as right-wing. In Ukraine, this says nothing about political orientation. It is possible to be a patriotic or nationalist LGBTQI+ activist. The dividing line is between those who profess to be Ukrainian and those who want to destroy it.

A recent and controversial example of this is certainly the relationship with Stepan Bandera. (The nationalist politician Bandera is accused of having collaborated with the German Nazi regime during World War II, editor's note). Those who profess support for him today, including many Jews, are not necessarily supporters of Bandera's political ideology.

People support the idea of defending their own country.

So you are saying that not only Ukraine, but also the West needs a new language to make it possible to describe what is happening right now in Europe and in the world?

Of course, this new language is needed by the whole world. This is not a Russian-Ukrainian, but a world war. I am not saying this in order to involve the uninvolved in this conflict or to make them responsible for it. The Russians themselves claim that they are fighting against the whole world. It is a war of systems in which, in their opinion, there can only be one winner. The West has not understood this until today.

Has this new language already produced new words or new word meanings?

In fact, a great many. Every war creates a new reality that renounces old meanings and creates layers of new word meanings instead. This is not always easy to translate. „Arrive“ and „depart,“ for example, now refer to the Russian missiles fired at our cities and the anti-aircraft missiles that intercept them, respectively.

Then there is a trivialization of the word „atom,“ I suppose you could say „atomic.“ This is intended to maintain an ironic distance from the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Formerly charged terms are thus profaned in everyday language use.

To take away their horror?

Yes, of course there is something fatalistic about it. But it is based on the conviction that one can no longer stand idly by and watch, but must become active oneself.

You've done a lot of work on the poetry of Paul Celan, which convinced Theodor W. Adorno that poetry could be written again after Auschwitz. Are there lessons you have drawn from these postwar observations for your own work?

I've only recently been thinking hard about Adorno's sentence, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and I think: one can and one must. Poems do not negate the horror, they can reflect it. In an honest poem, the shadow of Auschwitz is always present.

In Celan's poetics, the moment of breathing in and out when reading poems plays an important role, because it is supposed to show: One is still alive. Can you do something with that?

This idea is very close to me. I remember very well the first two months of the war, when it was physically difficult for me to exhale. Language is not an abstract practice, it is directly connected with breathing. Only those who can breathe freely can speak.

But not only Celan's poems bear witness to survival, but also, for example, those of the Polish Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz, who is even more important to me personally. He endures trauma and overcomes it by making it sayable. Miłosz experienced an inconceivable amount of evil and darkness, but was able to preserve the light within himself.

I want to follow his example.

Text and Interview by Ruben Donsbach

Text and interview by Ruben Donsbach